From Nanny to the Bully State

2nd October 2009 at 01:00

A great deal of effort goes into preventing bullying in schools. And so it should. If it is not dealt with early enough, it can blight someone's life by limiting their only opportunity for education - never mind any physical or mental suffering.

Bullying is not just for kids. It pervades more than playgrounds and classrooms, and it exists in the workplace, on the streets, in personal relationships and in the community.

I witnessed bullying in the Scottish Parliament where a number of MSPs of both sexes had a reputation for threatening their staff, while putting on a compassionate face for the cameras and constituents. The same MSPs would, of course, know what's good for us all, regularly telling the public how they had to mend their ways - or a new law would mean a fine, even a criminal record and the loss of one's livelihood. I sometimes wondered if these MSPs were bullied at school and this was their chance - payback time?

It used to be that we had the Nanny State - a phrase coined in 1965 by that Scots Tory and editor of The Spectator, Iain Macleod MP. But Nanny is no more; she has been sent packing. A bruising, brash, young thing - the bully - has replaced nanny.

Politicians, like the ones I saw at Holyrood, are helping to build the Bully State. No longer content to allow people to enjoy their hard-fought liberties while pointing out the choices they would prefer we make, the state goes to great lengths to restrict our choices, even entering our private property to do so.

Politicians seem to believe that, while people are capable of electing their governments, they are incapable of electing when and how to eat, drink or smoke what's good or bad for them. Frankly, it's the politicians that are bad for us, not my steak tartare, my cigar or my large malt whisky.

We see it in the demonisation of fat, salt, alcohol, caffeine and tobacco. How ironic that the concern used to be Jeremy having a fag behind the bike shed: now the jannie is likely to be there with him, and maybe Miss Jones from geography too.

Some of the absurdities that result from such bullying you could not make up in the creative writing class. The anti-salt crusade resulted in Marmite being banned from a school in Wales. Now you either love it or hate it, but banning Marmite is hardly going to reduce the likelihood of hypertension (a child's serving is typically only 6 per cent of the recommended daily intake).

But it's not just Marmite that is the target. Last year, in his defeated private bill to fight obesity, Edinburgh MP Nigel Griffiths tried to ban cartoon characters from advertising breakfast cereals. But he, or someone else, will try again. Even as a kid, I knew the Honey Monster and Tony the Tiger were not real; do Griffiths and his supporters put something stronger in their cereal bowls? The question I have for Griffiths is simple - if the promotion of children's foods has been around since the 1950s (and I recall it myself in the 60s and 70s), why was childhood obesity not a problem then? Could it just be kids are less active than before?

The lifestyle laws and regulations are no longer about recommending what we should do - they are deciding what we can do. Coupled with policing by surveillance, new powers of entry, laws that remove property rights and the threat of a database-linked ID card, one can see that Nanny was as contemporary as William Hartnell playing Doctor Who.

The real bully to watch may not be the pupil in the playground - but the straight As pupil with ambitions of governing the country. Be warned.

Brian Monteith's new book, The Bully State: The End of Tolerance, is published on October 8 by

Brian Monteith is a former MSP who was more bullied than bullying.

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